I wonder if it’s ironic or merely coincidental that I spoke to Randy Randall of No Age on the eve of the MTV VMAs hitting our Brooklyn shores for the first time in its 29-year history. The merger of these two constructs—allegedly indie and definitively corporate—is at first glance, the inverse to No Age’s longstanding ethos. Imagining the LA duo even brushing elbows with the Barclays Center red-carpet crowd inspires bemusement.
The do-it-yourself aesthetic that No Age has employed since their ’07 debut reached a self-evident height on the release of their latest, An Object, a record that Randall and Dean Spunt hand-packaged—5000 LPs and 5000 CDs—themselves. Their art-school constructivism brings us back to what was the norm only a few years ago: hand-making your own record used to be a symbol of defiance among a music community disillusioned by what the then industry was offering, or, better put, what they weren’t. Self-releasing your album was an act repurposed when the process was pirated by a swath of young independent creatives who wouldn’t wait for conventional media or labels to come around to the music that was already filling hosts of DIY venues in Brooklyn.
Now we have the VMAs.
I guess it’s coincidental because of timing and ironic because the city that used to host the VMAs—Los Angeles—is also the home of No Age, a glossy town far removed from the gritty punk that has come to sonically exemplify the band’s career. I start our conversation with a dig at the event by asking Randall if he would rather watch Alan Thicke on Growing Pains or listen to Robin Thicke’s music.
“I kind of like that ‘Blurred Lines’ song,” Randall admits. “But the side note on that is that John Larroquette from Night Court, his son is an awesome musician who lives in LA and creates rad dance music as well. And I’m unaware if they know each other or not. So I think John Larroquette’s son should step up. I don’t know if he’s a professional musician or not, but I mean, come on. Growing Pains? That show’s whack.”
So much for nostalgia.
Even the name No Age—a play on the term “new age” coined by Greg Ginn/SST records for a compilation of outsider, improvisational noise music of the same name—implies the duo is indefinable by an era or age, but, with the complicated environment that new-DIY and mainstream indie proliferates, that’s no longer possible.
“Hopefully the thing you’re creating has enough meaning and weight to it that it can live up to that name, so I guess it’s nice in the sense that No Age has taken on this all-encompassing kind of idea,” Randall tells me. “And it comes from a sort of punk tradition, like Sonic Youth and Reagan Youth. We sidestepped having ‘youth’ in the name, so hopefully that puts us on the process of longevity.”
As a new generation creates their own brand of nostalgia, No Age finds themselves in a similarly awkward position as both of those Youth-ful examples: they’re ultimately sort of mainstream. Now releasing their third album on Sub Pop, by no means a major label, but popular enough that they felt compelled to launch an imprint (Hardly Art) to put out smaller releases, the band has more leverage (and presumably budget) at their disposal. Yet, in defiance of a generation raised on corporate branding, the impetus behind An Object—in fact, the very reason for its existence—was to return to something they knew very well.
“We had been struggling writing songs and we couldn’t really find the throughway for this concept that we needed to push forward,” Randall says, explaining the origins of the record. “So [Dean] came to me one day and was like, ‘We’re going to make everything.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, of course!’ He said, ‘No, we’re going to physically touch every single one of these things.’ And I was like, ‘Oh!’ That was kind of what we needed to start the recording process, and from there we kind of worked backwards.”
But as the VMAs might suggest, there’s been a paradigm shift in Brooklyn and other youth-driven cities over the course of the last five years, and the DIY movement is seen as the past generation’s game. Much more intertwined with branding and less interested in “doing it themselves,” the new guard is often propped as the antithesis: The Alex P. Keaton effect. So do No Age feel as though they’re becoming more of an outsider band despite their wider access to fans?
“It’s a nebulous sort of world that you sort of navigate,” Randall says. “I kept thinking of that Ramones song, ‘I’m an outsider.’ I don’t know; I think sometimes we’re almost worried we’re too much in the cut, like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re the band, wear your shoes, do this thing.’ But I like that big culture is always on this three-year delay from whatever’s happening recently.”
Deftly, he turns my question around. “We talk about DIY or this heritage sort of style, but I feel like everything is that way now, where people are like, ‘Yeah, I created this, or I bought it on Etsy from someone who hand-created it,’ down to the minutia. ‘These shoelaces are hand-woven.’”
Yet unlike the examples Randall laid out, No Age didn’t want to make the creation of An Object its selling point. This was the antithesis of what An Object should be, at least through the eyes of Dean Spunt.
“He didn’t want to talk about it in the press, and Sub Pop sort of agreed, like ‘Oh yeah, you guys play good, and we’ll mine the shit out of it, we’ll talk about it all the time.’ And it was kind of a trade like, ‘Oh, well, whatever sells our records.’”
But for a subject they initially didn’t want to discuss, the media has sure made it a focal point. “We’re not too proud of ourselves to talk ad nauseum. We grew up in a time and place where creating your own records and doing your thing was a necessity, not a novelty.” Hitting the nail on the head, Randall affirms, “We’ve done this before.”
Something else No Age has done before is complain on stage about corporate branding (in relation to the very festival they were playing) and the mainstream pilfering of independent culture en masse. Simultaneously, they have directly benefited from this trend by participating in such large-scale events. Randall wades through this conflict without naivety.
“It’s tricky, right? I have a hard time talking about, in terms of music as a bigger thing, or the industry as a representative of the recording industry. No one wants to say anything about it because it’s like, ‘Shh, they’re giving us money.’ I think that’s the scary part—the music itself just isn’t generating money. You can get music for free, most music you can download or you can transport it. And the ability to do that without paying is very easy; it’s in the hands of just about everybody out there. So the ways to make money being an artist are just as challenging as anything else. So people are excited to make money one way or another, but I think at the same time I don’t see that as a long-term option. It’s not a renewable resource. Corporate interest in underground music only serves them for as long as it’s profitable to them to exploit. Once they’ve decided that’s no longer profitable to them, they’ll move on to something else. Now everybody has a banana car or something, like, ‘What happened to me, I play rock and roll, man! It’s my blood, sweat, and tears! Where’s my free Sprite?’
“That’s the thing—I don’t think that corporations, or the people that work for them are bad people, I think they’re just trying to figure out how to make money and if they can exploit one thing and go on to the next one, that’s just fine for them. But if I have a hope to create art and create music for the rest of my life, I don’t see this as the long-term goal. If I had wanted to work for Scion or GM or Bank of America I would have just gone straight there. Playing music was the point, not working for Bank of America.”
As Randall explains his viewpoint, I question if there is a level of hypocrisy involved as he and Spunt prepare to play FYF Fest, another three-letter acronym that, despite its best DIY intentions, is now run by the same corporation (Goldenvoice) that regularly raids pockets in the desert each year at Coachella.
“If you can get Kentucky Fried Chicken to put their name on a stage and give you a hundred thousand dollars, I say more power to ’em because it looks like a hell of a job that [festival organizers] have to do there. And we’re about forty minutes of a four-hour entertainment walk, so I don’t feel personally responsible; if our set lets people buy fried chicken because of our music, then that’s fine. I think we could also get up on stage and say, 'Fuck fried chicken,' and that’s fine, too. It doesn’t all hinge on us. You can change it from the inside, you get in there, do your thing, and even though corporations create bombs, you’re telling people not to buy.”
But despite all of this—the gravity of No Age’s commitment to DIY and the hard work that comes with straddling the mainstream/indie line—the duo still maintains a healthy sense of humor about it all. In hand-constructing the ten thousand records, they took the time to be playful with it.
“I think one [record] has my phone number,” Randall says. “I was like ‘Hey, what's up, call me!’ and put my phone number. We have our friend, a skateboard artist, Ed Templeton, who came by with his wife Deanna to do a photoshoot. He came by and we’re like, ‘Oh Ed, you should draw something!’ So he drew on the inside of two CD cases and an LP case. So that's three out of five thousand.”
He adds, with an unlikely poignancy that captures that DIY spirit, “It was just sort of whatever happened. It was kind of a loose process like that.”